Christina Patterson: Tales Of The City

'The first shock was the B&B's landlady: not a plump woman with pursed lips but a glamorous blonde'
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It is the season of the literary festival and so it is also the season of the bed and breakfast. That little corner of a field that is for ever England was my first taste of a bed that you paid for - my first taste, too, of a full English breakfast. "We're off to Dorset," my father would announce suddenly. "Don't worry, we'll find somewhere to stay."

And so, at some unearthly hour, to foil the demonic plans of anyone else who had had the same idea, we would pack up the car and set off, destination and accommodation mysteries that would unfold as the day wore on. My chief memories are of rain: sheets of it, lashing the car windows, and of my father, staring balefully through the windscreen wipers to declare that it looked "a bit brighter ahead".

Eventually, we would stop: for fish and chips, perhaps, and then at some lonely outpost, to tangle with candlewick bedspreads and erratic plumbing. Once, we ended up in some kind of brothel in Bala. My mother didn't sleep a wink. We children nodded off as soon as our heads hit our polyester pillows - and dreamt happily of bacon and eggs.

As an adult, my experience of B&Bs has been a little less uncritical. At Hay-on-Wye, having drunk too much to drive and failed to find a taxi, I was once forced to walk the three miles back to my flowery duvet along a sinister network of silent country lanes. Silent, that is, until I heard some coughing in the bushes. It was only then that I discovered the literal truth of the phrase "fight or flight". When I finally reached the B&B, heart pounding and legs shaking, I was greeted by a medley of giant, snarling dogs.

I survived, of course. Long enough, in fact, to add to a treasure trove of experiences a bungalow that smelt of chip fat, with a single room the size of a cupboard, and a "country house" in Chilham with collapsing furniture and plastic poinsettias in July.

So a recent trip, with my Spanish friend, Juan, to the Ledbury poetry festival, was a bit of a surprise. The first shock was the landlady: not a plump woman with pursed lips and tight curls, but a glamorous, smiley blonde. The second shock was the house: an Elizabethan mansion boasting beams in the bedrooms, antiques and bathrooms full of halogen spotlights and gleaming steel. I could hardly wrench myself away.

We arrived back that night to find a note by the front door: "Please bolt the door and switch the light off." I was surprised to see the landlord bustling past in his dressing gown, but did as instructed. At breakfast the next morning, now fully clothed and chewing a sausage, the man from the previous night greeted me like a long-lost friend. He was not, it turned out, the landlord. He was a fellow guest who had been making a nocturnal dash to the car for some pills and I had locked him out. He seemed, however, remarkably forgiving. He and his wife were already clearly best friends with the other couple seated around the table. Within minutes of taking our seats, we were too. Anecdotes were swapped in a range of strong regional accents. Juan struggled manfully, but looked baffled.

Keen to linger a little longer among the sweet peas and the butterflies, we decided to bunk off "Scottish Poetry Today". That was fine, said Maureen, but she was taking her daughter into town, so could we vacate the room sharpish? We were most welcome, she added, to sit in the garden. Twenty minutes later, I saw Juan striding purposefully towards some open French windows. "No!" I hissed. "You can't go there! It's private." Juan's face expressed, once again, an incomprehension that went beyond language. "And anyway," I added, "we've already signed the guest book. It would be," I searched for the right word, "a bit embarrassing".

John and Anne, our hosts in the Cotswolds the next night, were charm itself. Yes, at 9.30pm it was a little late for the pub to serve food, but they would phone and see what they could do. "Oh, and we serve breakfast," she added with a smile, "at 8.30. Is that OK?" I could see Juan's face shifting into an expression that could be roughly translated as that's-a-bit-bloody-early-can't-we-make-it-later, but butted in with a sharp, "Yes, thank you, that would be lovely!"

And so we set our alarms and endured the by-now standard ritual of instant bonding over scrambled eggs with strangers. Juan was keen to find out whether the other rooms also had a polite notice in the bathroom, informing them that there was only enough hot water for one bath, but I wouldn't let him. In any case, there was no time. John and Anne were visiting some friends that morning, so could we pack up sharpish? Oh, and sign the visitor book, of course.

By the end of the weekend, we were exhausted. Exhausted by our early breakfasts and exhausted by so much politeness. And I was exhausted by the effort of explaining it all: that yes, it is a commercial transaction, but no, you are not a customer. The people to whom you pay your (sometimes hefty) cheque are not service providers, but gracious hosts. They are changing your sheets and cooking you delicious breakfasts and you must be very, very grateful. Why? Look, I don't know exactly why. But yes, next time, we can stay in a hotel.